A basketball player in a black uniform runs onto a court to high five a teammate while surrounded by other players applauding her.

The Mariners’ starting lineup takes the floor at the CCAA Nationals / Image via Paul Yates at Vancouver Sports Pictures

When I first came to VIU’s Nanaimo campus, I was told “the science students stay at the top and the trades students keep to the bottom.” I’ve found this detached mindset prevalent at VIU, making it difficult to feel as though I’m part of a broader university community.

The Canadian Collegiate Athletics Association (CCAA)’s Women’s Basketball Nationals changed this for me. The championship tournament, played in VIU’s Gymnasium March 25–27, showed me how connected the seemingly distant parts of VIU can be. 

Just to clear things up for the one reader I may have confused, no, I was not one of the great athletes playing over that weekend. I did, however, have a front row seat to what was the greatest show in town.

For each game of the tournament, I was situated in prime territory: the end of the scorer’s table. To my direct left sat long time Mariners announcer, Matt Carter. If I had to describe Carter’s MCing in one word, it would be “efficient”. He smoothly shifted between beatboxing, blasting sports anthems, playing riffs on his little keyboard, and calling out the names of the players who scored or fouled.

Carter’s work received heaps of praise throughout the event, including from an official, who took the time to personally thank him for “playing bangers all weekend.” It was a moment that made everybody at the scorer’s table smile.

To my right sat the assigned “home” team’s bench. Getting to sit next to coaching staff all weekend was quite the ride, as I got to see the emotional highs and lows that comes with coaching a team in a championship tournament.

It was fascinating witnessing all the different approaches each coaching staff used to lead their teams. Take the Champlain Saint-Lambert Cavaliers, a mainly francophone team, who’s coaching staff would switch between speaking to their players in French and English based on what the circumstances demanded.

More than anything, it was impossible not to notice how much the coaching staff cared about their athletes.  

A moment that stood out to me was when an assistant coach for Toronto’s Humber College Hawks pulled aside team sharpshooter Nikki Ylagan during the dying seconds of a timeout. Ylagan had appeared hesitant to shoot the ball during the match, often electing to pass it off or dribble.

The coach said to her, “you are our Steph Curry. You are a special shooter.” In the following game, Ylagan hit 7 three pointers to lead her team.

It was easy to become invested in the storylines of each team. Everyone who watched a chunk of games at the tournament would begin to develop a liking for specific teams or players. This emerging loyalty immediately went out the window when that team played the host VIU Mariners. 

While every game of the tournament felt like its own short film, the Mariners games were filled with enough drama to be 90-minute features.

From afar, the packed stands of the VIU gym looked like a massive blur of blue and white. Students, parents, locals, and basketball fans all crowded together, most sporting the Mariners’ colours.

Free throws were a test for Mariners opponents, as players lining up for their shots had to try and ignore a group of boisterous fans with blue face paint and sailor’s hats rowing an imaginary boat on the sidelines behind the basket. The group’s chants of “heave, ho!” were accompanied by the sound of cowbells and the howls of the Mariner faithful.

Friday evening’s bout between the Mariners and Alberta’s Lakeland Rustlers was my first taste of the passionate VIU crowd that was out in full force over the weekend.

The Rustlers were an intimidating matchup led by coach Chris King, the CCAA Coach of the Year for 2021-22, and guard Tori Dugan, who was named the CCAA Player of the Year.

The Rustlers’ accolades were a likely reason the crowd was particularly hostile towards them throughout the evening, with chants of “overrated” echoing through the gym in the last seconds of a game where the Mariners came back from down double digits to pull off the win.

After the game, Carter made it a point to mention to me that this match was one of the most exciting and energetic Mariners games he had seen in all his years working for the team.

Neither of us knew the level of excitement we had in store for us over the next two nights.

The Mariners’ Saturday night match against the Dawson Blues was somehow even more action-packed than the last. Dawson’s team was talented, boasting plenty of skilled and hard-working players.

While Dawson did not have the anointed Coach of the Year, their bench boss Trevor Williams played for Team Canada against Michael Jordan and his USA “Dream Team” in the 1992 Olympics.

The crowd’s energy was a major factor in the game against the Blues, because free throws were plentiful. Saturday night was primetime for a high-stakes matchup like this one, and the bleachers were full.

When the final buzzer sounded in the Mariners win, there was simply pure joy in the crowd, as well as on the Mariners bench. Then the dust settled and everyone’s mind focused on the next day.

VIU still had one more match left.

The gold medal game surpassed the Mariners’ first two matches in excitement and intensity, both from the benches and the crowd. VIU faced off against the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) Ooks out of Edmonton, the only ones left standing in the way of a Mariners gold on home court.

The game had everything you could ask for in a final match: big shots, big defensive plays, incredible performances from the veterans, constant back and forth, and a score that remained close throughout.

In fact, the game was tied as the clock ticked down its final seconds. The Mariners had the ball, and time for one more play to win the championship.

Fifth-year veteran and All-Canadian Amber Lease motioned for her home crowd to get loud. This was her final night playing as a Mariner—perhaps her final play. If her team scored here, it would be a storybook ending.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the Mariners’ story.

Lease inbounded the ball to Shayce Johnson, VIU’s go-to player. Johnson drove to the basket, but couldn’t get the layup to fall past the stout defence of the Ooks. NAIT grabbed the loose ball and ran down the floor to get off a last-second shot.

The ball clanged off the rim. For the first time all tournament, the game was going to overtime.

The first few minutes of overtime saw a continuation of the back-and-forth action from the previous 40 minutes. About halfway through the extra frame, however, NAIT started hitting shots more often than the Mariners and the game started getting out of reach.

VIU had to resort to intentional fouling in the final seconds, as it was the only logistical way they could win. But the damage was done and NAIT held on to win the goal medal by a score of 76–71.

The final buzzer sounded and the emotions poured.

From the NAIT Ooks bench, there was screaming, cheering and hugging. The victory was an extra special one for NAIT head coach Todd Warwick; he began his collegiate coaching career at VIU and was in his last season coaching in the CCAA, as he is set to become head coach at Thompson Rivers University.

On the other side of the scorer’s table to my right, the home team was dejected. Who could blame them?

This was a dream season for the Mariners. The team was ranked at or near number one in the CCAA all season and anticipation was through the roof following the two-year-long nightmare delay caused by the global pandemic. To come that close to the eternal glory of gold and lose in extra time is heartbreaking. The team wasn’t afraid to show how they felt, with players and coaching staff alike crying and hugging each other.

Among the most impacted were the trio of Lease, Johnson, and Kiara Johnson, whose VIU careers were coming to an end. 

“I would just like to thank our supporters and students,” Lease said when I reached out after the tournament. “Our crowds were impressive and absolutely amazing. Their support was a big part of our success and was a great way to end my career at VIU”.

Getting the chance to talk Mariners basketball all weekend with Mariners staff, volunteers, and media members really gave perspective to how much this team meant to so many people. Many of those working the event felt the same emotions the players did, having been there to watch the journey from the front row.

Others were inspired by the achievements of this Mariners team. A specific memory from the tournament that will stick with me came from a group of high school volunteers, who were eager to mention that they wanted to play basketball for VIU when they graduate.

If you are a VIU student and have not had the chance to see a Mariners game in person, I cannot recommend it enough. There are few venues that bring VIU students together better than Mariners games. Over the three days of the tournament, students representing every field of study came out to support a common goal, a shared vision of victory.

For those three days, I felt like the VIU student body was one and that I was a part of something great.

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